Was gin originally made from wine? A history of gin heard through the grapevine

Below is an excerpt from the June 2015 edition of GINNED! Magazine about Chilgrove Dry Gin. Every month, Craft Gin Club members receive a bottle of amazing small-batch gins accompanied by GINNED! Magazine which is full of information about the gin, the distillery and loads of fascinating features.

Winston Churchill was a man that had a firm grasp on history. He felt that one that had not learned from it was doomed to repeat it whilst also believing that history would be good to him because he intended to write it. But Churchill, known to indulge in a dry martini or three, may have been stumped when it came to the history of the gin in those martinis. No matter how much he researched that history in order to learn from it or wrote the history of his own enjoyment of drinking London Dry, the British Bulldog would find he lacked a firm grasp on gin: for the history of gin is open to interpretation.

One interpretation on the origins of gin agreed on by several drinks experts places grapes where grain lies today - as the base distillate of gin. When Christopher Beaumont-Hutchings and his wife Celia set out to create their version of the world’s favourite juniper spirit, Chilgrove Dry Gin, they sought to create a modern drink steeped in history, a history whose grape-based interpretation they found most convincing.

But how much water (or wine) does this theory hold? 

David T. Smith, an expert on gin and its history, insists that the origin of gin is a contentious issue and that “everything that is written about it must be done with a certain openness as, unfortunately, the definitive information is not there.” One thing is for certain, however: gin’s origins lie not in the UK but on the Continent, specifically in the region which is today the Netherlands and Belgium. 

Virtually all drinks historians agree that gin evolved from jenever, a juniper-led drink that dates back to anywhere from the 13th Century to the early 17th Century depending on your interpretation of historical texts. The Jenever Museum in Hasselt, Belgium and its Honorary Chairman, Eric Van Schoonenberghe, trace their research back to one of those texts, Der naturen bloeme, compiled between 1266 and 1269 by Dutch poet Jacob van Maerlant. The museum and Chairman believe Der naturen bloeme to contain the first record of a juniper-infused drink which could be considered an “immediate predecessor of the present-day gin” in so much as van Maerlant rhymes of the properties of the juniper bush as well as descriptions of the plant’s medicinal qualities, descriptions echoed by the poet’s contemporaries. 

Der naturen bloeme: the original gin recipe?

Der naturen bloeme: the original gin recipe?

Van Maerlant’s description that stands out most for our Gin of the Month’s treatise that gin originated with grapes is that of a “good remedy for abdominal cramps” concocted from juniper berries boiled in wine. Although this isn’t exactly the grape-based spirit reference needed to confirm Chilgrove’s theory, in Der naturen bloeme van Maerlant also speaks of the dry distillation of juniper wood in order to make the juniper oil that Low Lands inhabitants used as medicine during the period. So here we have in the same text evidence of juniper in grape-based alcohol and the plant’s distillation.


Other historians, however, put the origins of jenever, and by association gin, towards the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th Centuries. Doctor Sylvius de Bouve who lived in the 1500s adopted earlier uses of juniper berries to create what he believed a potent medicine as juniper was still widely used as a sort of cure all. But by this point, however, wine was out of favour in Holland for reasons cultural, economical and environmental. 

According to American Professor of Medieval History Richard W. Unger, “over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, wine consumption declined in the Low Countries.” In Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Unger cites the economical reason of a 50% rise in the price of wines from Bordeaux caused by the onset of the 100 Year’s War in the mid-1300s, a war which destroyed much of the region’s vineyards. He also notes that by the 1320s records of the houses of Dutch nobles show the wide-consumption of beer versus in the previous century when nobles preferred wine, a cultural shift brought on by a growing popularity of hopped beer from Germany, its subsequent ban by a Dutch count, and the count’s encouragement of locally produced hopped beer.

Can we have some gin from that wine?

Can we have some gin from that wine?

From an environmental standpoint, it appears that early jenever producers like de Bouve would have been hard-pressed to make jenever from a wine-based distillate due to changing weather conditions. Vineyards in Holland and Belgium were not uncommon before de Bouve’s days. But with the onset of what is known as “The Little Ice Age”, a period of colder climates beginning in the 1300s and lasting until the middle of the 19th Century, grapes were more difficult to grow well in the Low Countries and thusly, they would have been harder to find and more expensive. In his 1996 history of jenever, Jenever in de Lage Landen (“Jenever in the Low Countries”), Von Schoonenberghe writes of particularly bad grape harvests in the early 1500s and the subsequent “disappearance of the vineyards in our regions” as the cold wave increased in intensity throughout the rest of the century. 

With wine hard to come by, de Bouve distilled his disputed “first jenever” with korenbrandewijn, or “burnt barley wine” with “burnt” from “brande” being the actual translation of “distilled”. Brandewijn is the term from which we take “brandy”, which we in the UK know as a grape-based spirt. Cognac, for instance, is simply brandy made in the French region of Cognac. 

But in Dutch, brandewijn can refer to spirits made from any number of elements. Due to the deterioration of the Low Countries’ vineyards, at the time of de Bouve’s experimentation with spirits, brandewijn was distilled primarily from beer which was no surprise considering the bubbly drink’s popularity. The liquid that de Bouve used to make his version of jenever would resemble what we know as “mash”, the potent beer fermented from malted grains - primarily barley but wheat, rye and corn can also be malted - that is used to make whisky. What’s even more confusing from a terminology perspective in the search for gin’s grape-based spirit origins is that mash is also known as “malt wine.”

Malt wine and its distillate are not particularly palatable. That’s why we tend to age it in barrels to produce whisky. That’s also why de Bouve set a trend of distilling it with juniper as well as other herbs and spices - to soften the taste of the harsh spirit. With the addition of these botanicals, people soon found jenever just as pleasant as a recreational drink as they did a medicine.  


Having spanned five centuries and a few theories, at this point you’re probably asking yourself, dear reader, “So what’s the verdict? Was gin made from grapes or not?” Well, as David T. Smith points out, not definitively. But we can come even closer to whatever truth history may hold with one additional - and relatively obscure - text: a humble recipe found at the British Museum.

The 18th Century British physician Sir Hans Sloane was a man of curiosities, so much so that he amassed one of the period’s greatest collections. The man for which London’s Sloane Square is named bequeathed a trove of treasures to England via King George II upon his death in 1753, a trove that was displayed to the public for the first time six years later and which composed a large part of the British Museum’s first collection. 

Drinks deity David Wondrich checks out a recipe for frog ashes

Drinks deity David Wondrich checks out a recipe for frog ashes

Amongst these treasures, which included 71,000 objects, was a hand-authored Dutch book dating from 1495, now housed at the British Library. Within its pages, Von Schoonenberghe found two brandy recipes which at first glance may not seem all that impressive. What makes these recipes stand out is their placement within the book - they are not found in the section about “medicinal waters” but rather mixed in amongst “kitchen recipes”. 

The text for the first recipe, entitled Gebrande wyn te maken (Making Brandy Wine), is accompanied by the phrase de aqua vina. The recipe itself calls for a distillate made from a mixture of wine and beer but simultaneously notes that medicinal brandy may only be distilled from wine, the effectiveness of which increases by distilling with it “wrapped in a little piece of cloth” such plants as sage, nutmeg, clove and, of course, juniper.

The presence of juniper in the recipe, however, requires interpretation. Firstly, juniper does not appear to weigh more on the recipe than the other botanicals mentioned. Secondly, it is not 100% certain that the recipe calls for juniper, although highly likely. The 15th Century Dutch term written in the book is gorsbeyn of dameren which literally translates to “the ashes of frog bones”. But historians feel that frogs bones (gorsbeyn) is misleading and is a corruption of three words found in other Dutch texts of the period that mean “juniper”. Thus, the common assumption is that gorsbeyn of dameren means “juniper powder” and that the recipe calling for a wine distillate is in fact the first recorded gin recipe. 

At the same time, the recipe calling for a pure wine distillate identifies itself as for medicinal purposes, not recreational. The Gebrande wyn te maken recipe with a distillate made from a mixture of wine and beer, however, falling under “kitchen recipes”, would indeed be for recreation. It would then appear that, if this find is indeed the first recorded gin recipe, that it combines gin’s possible grape-based past with its grain-based future. 

And no one loves to taste past and future more than drinks historians. 


One of the world’s premier followers of historical hooch is Philip Duff. Upon reading about the recipe in the Sloane Manuscripts, Duff became mesmerised and traced the origins of the 1495 recipe book back to Eastern Holland, telling the magazine Drinks International that the recipe, “based on grape distillate, is part of the very foundation of the category.” 

Taking his obsession a step further, he commissioned a group of drinks experts to follow the trail from the British Library to the Jenever Museum in Zuidam, Holland near the original location of the 1495 book’s publications, and then on to Cognac where the world’s most well-known grape-based spirits are made. Here, the trip’s funding partner, EuroWineGate (EWG), a specialist in grape-based spirits, worked with the experts to distill two recipes, one that was a near exact representation of Gebrande wyn te maken and an alternative version using more modern botanicals. One hundred bottles of Gin 1495, as the resulting spirit is called, resulted from the experts’ efforts. 

Fittingly, 1495 is the year that the Renaissance arrived in France and continued its spread to the Low Countries where the closest thing we have to the birth of gin was written. Today, five-hundred and twenty years later, gin lovers find themselves in the thick of a gin renaissance, a renaissance led by the likes of Christopher and Celia and their Chilgrove Dry Gin of the Vine. 

With all their research into the history of the spirit, the pair has certainly learned from the mistakes of others and will not repeat them as Churchill warned. And Churchill would certainly have given the couple a friendly wink as he sipped a Chilgrove Dry Martini for like himself, he would appreciate that they are writing their own modern history of gin. 

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